It’s practically an urban legend: A man blacks out after meeting a woman for a drink at a bar. When he comes to, he finds himself naked in a hotel bathtub covered with ice. And there’s a throbbing ache in his side. A hand-scrawled sign blares the bad news: “Go to the ER right away!”
He suddenly realizes: His kidney is gone.
It rarely happens that way, but there’s reason to fear illegal organ harvesting. The practice is rampant and getting worse by the year.
Some countries, like China, appear to be heavily implicated as a matter of official policy. A recent report by Matthew Robertson of Australian National University published in the journal BMC Medical Ethics claims that the Chinese government is forcibly harvesting human organs from imprisoned members of the banned religious organization Falun Gong.
Researchers conducted in-depth surveys of hospitals and clinics across China and found that the number of organs being harvested far exceeds what the government is reporting.
Robertson accuses the government of falsifying official data to try to conceal its involvement in the illegal organ trade
China is not alone. Other countries, including India and Indonesia, are also deeply implicated in the trade.
But focusing on foreign governments also conveniently obscures the role that many Western hospitals and doctors are playing in the trade, sometimes unwittingly but just as often with their tacit complicity.
Doctors may agree to conduct a transplant, for a fee, not really caring how they obtained the organ – or from whom.
And the same goes for the recipients, usually rich Westerners, many of whom are willing to pay middlemen enormous sums — $200,000 or more — to obtain a badly-needed kidney, pancreas, lung or heart.
The illegal organ trade also includes many donors, especially in poor communities the world over, who voluntarily give up their organs – for cash
In some countries, men holding ads of $100 bills will scour impoverished neighborhoods looking for healthy young men and women willing to sell one or more of their vital organs, often a kidney — the organ most in demand.
Nancy Scherper-Hughes, a professor of medical anthropology at UC Berkeley and co-founder and Director of Organs Watch, a medical human rights project, says the demand for illegal organs is “insatiable.”
Currently, some 123,000 people are on the official donor list for kidneys worldwide, but few will get them anytime soon.
A decade ago, some 11,000 were obtained on the black market, according to data collected by the World Health Organization (WHO). That leaves a huge shortfall. About 25 people die every day waiting for a kidney transplant that never comes.
Scherper-Hughes, who also serves as a WHO consultant, has frequently gone undercover to expose the corruption that fuels the illegal organ trade. She’s tracked organs to “broker-friendly” hospitals and medical centers in New York, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, among other places.
It’s not just hospitals. Corruptible funeral homes may harvest organs prior to burial. Women and girls sold into sexual slavery are also common victims. There are even confirmed reports that ISIS and other terrorist organizations have engaged in the illegal organ trade to finance weapons purchases.
In China alone, the trade has an estimated value of $1 billion annually.
Many of those seeking illegal organs aren’t actually on a waiting list for a donor. Some are people who can’t qualify for a donor because of their medical condition. They may have had cancer, are too old, or have other “triage-based disqualifiers.”
In addition, even those that get a transplanted organ generally face the need to take auto-immune suppression drugs to stave off organ rejection, while the same drugs also lower their overall immune competence.
“If all of that works out, they will still be facing the fact that transplant organs will often need to be replaced within 10 years of implant,” says one expert.
Organ donation is potentially a major life-saver for those with serious illnesses. More than a third of all US deaths – about 900,000 annually – might have been prevented if an organ had been available, experts say.
But woefully few are – hence the burgeoning illegal trade.
What’s the answer? Ultimately, increasing the supply of organs available to be transplanted. And that means increasing the willingness of people to allow theirs to be harvested when they die
According to surveys, 95% of all Americans say they favor organ donation. But only 35% of all Americans are registered as donors.
Closing that gap would go a long way to ensuring that the supply of organs meets the ever-burgeoning demand.
Another possibility – strictly long-term — is to grow organs from stem cells or to replicate them using 3D imaging. The technologies are promising but haven’t been fully tested with animals, let alone humans yet. It could take years to develop viable prototypes.
For those desperate and dying, that’s way too long to wait.